In 2006, the Internet arguably faces its most comprehensive set of challenges since it was made accessible to the general public in the early 1990s. A series of public debates — on Chinese censorship of search engines, the ability of telephone companies and other Internet providers to charge extra for premium service, the role of governments in providing broadband access, and the future of Internet “uniform resource locator” (URL) addresses — have raised an old question with new urgency: Is the Internet primarily a vehicle for commerce or for community? The way these debates play out, and the policies that result, could make or break a host of businesses and ventures.
In this milieu, Mr. Ito, at age 39, has become one of the most visible global defenders of the idea that commerce and community can be designed to mutually reinforce each other. He argues that the great businesses of the Internet will not be those that stream canned video or data, but those that bring people together as mutual creators, in a kind of “open source” entrepreneurialism. Mr. Ito backs up this idea in part by underwriting the blog companies, participatory Web sites, and other interactive venues for which he is known. He also has become a visible public advocate of legal and technological structures in which standards are open, barriers to entry are low for starting new Web sites or online businesses, participation in online communities is encouraged, new institutions have more freedom to appear and gain influence, and the culture of the Web is integrated with the world at large. At the same time, Mr. Ito advocates acceptance of more pragmatic security-related measures: for example, making organizations highly accountable for online fraud, scams, and other deceptions. All of this has given him an influential presence in global Internet governance circles and in Japan in general: In May, a quietly published book of his conversations with novelist Ryu Murakami rapidly climbed to the sixth most popular ranking in the Japanese Amazon.com store.
The Next Cool Idea
Though Mr. Ito writes regularly (he maintains his own blog journal and recently extolled World of Warcraft in Wired magazine), his most common medium for expressing his ideas is his own frenetic lifestyle. He is the chairman of a Japanese Weblog software company called Six Apart Japan, founder and CEO of the Japanese investment firm Neoteny, and a well-known activist on behalf of open systems. In Japan, where he is now based, he fought unsuccessfully against the national ID card. In the United States, Mr. Ito has focused on protecting the fragile ecosystem of the Web itself. He is an elected governor of ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the nonprofit corporation that controls such mechanisms as the nomenclature of .com, .net, and other URL codes. He also sits on the board of the Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that is developing more practical alternatives to traditional copyright protection for an online world, like the “some rights reserved” license that allows copying, but with attribution for the original author or artist.
Mr. Ito was also an angel investor in Technorati, a specialized search engine that keeps track of what is going on in the blogosphere — the world of Weblogs — and for this San Francisco–based company, he also has an operating position: vice president of international business and mobile devices. David Sifry, Technorati’s founder and chief executive, says Mr. Ito’s global wanderings make him the perfect person to negotiate with foreign partners, and that he also brings a special visibility to the company as he takes on a more public political role.